If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.
23 March. Baruch chapters 1-3
These first chapters of the book are a combination of three Biblical genres – history, lament and wisdom. The introduction sets it firmly in historical context – Baruch wrote it in exile in Babylonia as a text to be read first to those who were in exile with him, then to be sent back to Jerusalem to be read and acted on by those who remained. It was sent along with money to pay for sacrifices and other expenses of the Temple. Reading the other books of this period one can get the impression that no Jews remained alive in Judah, that the Temple was totally destroyed and worship ceased. But from this book we get a different impression – a remnant remained in Jerusalem and was trying to keep the faith going there, just as the exiles were trying to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”. By having them both read the same texts, Baruch was trying perhaps to foster a sense of unity between them. Different places, different trying circumstances, but the same people of God. As one verse of a well-known Christian hymn puts it,
Through many a day of darkness,
Through many a scene of strife,
The faithful few fought bravely,
To guard the nation’s life,
Their Gospel of redemption,
Sin pardoned, man restored,
Was all in this enfolded,
“One Church, one Faith, one Lord.” (Edward Plumptre, 1889)
The second element is lament – the people’s confession and contrition for their sins, acknowledging God’s right to punish them for turning away from him. This sits very uneasily in today’s culture of rights, entitlements and personal freedom. While nearly everybody (I hope) realises when they have physically or emotionally hurt someone else and will be willing to apologise for it, it is common for people to take the attitude “what I choose to do is no-one else’s business, and if I offend them, that’s their problem”. And if that is the attitude towards fellow humans, the idea of offending God, let alone the idea that God has the right to punish us, is even more alien to this post-modern world.
Sometimes it takes a real crisis – personal or corporate – to make people come to their senses and understand that right and wrong, sin and punishment, confession and forgiveness, operate not only between individuals but across communities and ultimately the whole world. Perhaps the nearest a secular mindset comes to understanding this is with ecological damage and climate change, where we are gradually accepting that the pollution or waste I cause today will, indirectly but surely, have a negative impact on the lives of people I will never meet. And the scale of confession and repentance (i.e. changing attitudes and actions) that is required is no less than that which faced the Jews in exile, or left behind in Jerusalem.
The good news is that lament is followed by praise to God for his wisdom (Chapter 3), by which we can do things right. Only by doing things God’s way, and recognising our mutual dependence on each other, can we find the way of wisdom, the way of forgiveness, the way of sustainable living.